Despite two unsuccessful attempts in the past, the Mobile County Commission is considering housing some type of eatery inside Government Plaza for the first time in years.
At this point, the county is only evaluating what level of interest there might be among private businesses that could offer catering services to the hundreds of employees, visitors and jurors that come through the building five days a week.
Commissioners agreed to send out a request for proposals (RFP) for “food service operations” in Government Plaza on Monday in response to what Mobile County Commission President Connie Hudson said were “a lot of comments and requests from people in the building.”
“Initially, we would get into this as a catering service. Food would be prepared offsite, brought in and catered between certain hours. If it’s successful, then eventually food would be prepared on site with the possibility of adding a breakfast service as well,” Hudson said. “We’ve just heard several times that, if there was a good, plated lunch — with good food — at a reasonable cost in the building people would be excited about that.”
Hudson specifically mentioned having a dining option available to jurors hearing trials in Mobile County’s circuit and district courts. Circuit Judge Jim Patterson. who attended the commission meeting for an unrelated ceremony, expressed vocal support for the idea at the time.
The RFP invites any restaurateur to make a proposal for a viable foodservice operation, but at this point, the only specifics are that it would serve “hot meals.” The eatery would be located east of the Government Street entrance in the same area a Starbucks coffee shop formerly operated.
Commissioner Jerry Carl voted along with Hudson to approve the RFP, but Commissioner Merceria Ludgood had concerns and cast the lone “no” vote. Noting there have been “two failed attempts” in the same space, she said she doesn’t want the county in the “restaurant business.”
Ludgood said there are some areas where government or government contractors can “undercut” costs that fall on private sector businesses, and she wouldn’t want to “disincentivize further investment in downtown” by making the county a competitor to local restaurants.
“I just see all of this happening downtown and the investment going into the restaurants in the area, and I would just hate to pull a part of their potential client base,” Ludgood said. “From what I understand, the restaurant business is hard enough in the best of scenarios.”
In response, Hudson said she didn’t view the county as a competitor in the proposed scenario because it would be operated by a private entity. She also said the county would require the business to pay “market value” for the rental of the space inside Government Plaza.
“I see it as a private enterprise, and I think competition is always good,” Hudson added. “It really only improves the market and ultimately provides a better quality of good and services.”
Ludgood said she was still “conceptionally” opposed to the idea, but added that she’d feel better if any future food service contract for Government Plaza included something to ensure the recipient stays on a level playing field with others renting space in downtown Mobile.
Carl said he supported the decision to send out the RFP because it doesn’t commit the county to anything going forward and would help determine what type of operation might be the best fit.
“I would like to see who has an interest,” he said.
The county’s interest in providing a dining option in Government Plaza comes only a few weeks after another of Government Plaza’s tenants — the city of Mobile — offered private restaurants an opportunity to set up shop in one of its downtown properties.
As Lagniappe has reported, city officials agreed earlier this month to accept proposals for waterfront dining ideas at The Galley café inside GulfQuest Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico to help boost sagging attendance numbers.
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